When people refer to “universal design” principles, typically they are thinking about physical changes in the built environment that are inherently accessible and benefit everyone — people with and without disabilities. The classic example is curb cuts. This physical change originally was made for wheelchair users but also benefits parents with strollers, young children, people using walkers, bicyclists, delivery workers, etc. The physical change has a significant benefit beyond those for whom it was designed.
A related principle for churches might be called “universal social design.” After years of interacting with persons with deficits in social skills, I find that my own social skills have changed, particularly because many folks with certain disabilities do not have the ability to change. Yet, many church activities demand high social skills.
If it is true that people are excluded from church for social- skill reasons, what changes might be instituted within the social environment that would benefit not only persons with disabilities but the larger population as well? What “social ramp” would cause more people to have access and find social acceptance?
By adopting universal social-design principles, interactions among congregants would change. Keeping the value of the individual foremost, we might observe more openness, forgiveness, correction without rejection, holiness, and depth in basic social interactions. (Biblical support illustrating the depth of this interaction can be found in Matthew 25:31-46, where social interactions are equated with interacting with Jesus himself.)
When social skills trump acceptance, people are rejected and the social environment does not learn acceptance. By practicing universal social design, perhaps more people would be chosen as friends, and social-skill demands across all settings would be more accommodating. Softening the social environment would make the church less judgmental and more flexible and accepting of others — a corrective for rejecting people on the basis of social- skill deficits.
We do well to remember that social-skill deficits are not sin, but rejecting someone due to social-skill deficits is sin.